Economy recovers, but poverty gap widens for Arizona’s children
How has life changed for Arizona’s 1.6 million children from the beginning of the Great Recession in 2009 to today?
Despite an increase in families where both parents work, 51 percent of Arizona children live in low-income households, 26 percent live in poverty and the annual median income for families with children dropped by $7,210 to $53,470, according to Children’s Action Alliance’s Arizona Kids Count Data Book released earlier this month.
This and other factors contributed to Arizona’s ranking as 44th in the nation on conditions that promote successful academic achievement for children, according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2016 Kids Count Data Book. The state ranks 45th in children’s overall well-being.
The nation continues to have significant achievement gaps by students’ race/ethnicity and family income, according to the report.
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Schools: Awareness spurs solutions
Financial stress affects children’s health, home life and education, and “poor children are more likely to have difficulty learning and suffer physical or mental health problems. They are less likely to complete high school or find consistent employment in early adulthood,” according to the group’s 2013 report “Growing Up Poor in Arizona: State Policy at a Crossroads.”
“Being aware of community conditions is critical in assisting and supporting our students who are in need of help beyond academics and there is a need here at Cartwright,” said Dr. Jacob A. Chavez, superintendent of Cartwright Elementary School District.
“We have an on-site health clinic on school grounds that help families with immunizations and basic healthcare needs,” Chavez said. “Our Family Welcome Center distributes food boxes to our families as well. A federal grant allows us to provide breakfast and lunch to our students at no cost to them.”
Having family data is as important to schools and districts as having achievement data to target needs, said Dr. Kristi Sandvik, superintendent of Buckeye Elementary School District.
“It should never be used as an excuse, but it does help us to better understand the families we serve,” Sandvik said.
Buckeye Elementary is fortunate to have a supportive community and a Family Resource Center to provide for families needs, Sandvik said.
“Focusing on equity and equality in our schools and as a district helps us to seek resources and teaching methods that help our students and families to be successful,” Sandvik said.
Teachers who know their students are the best at differentiating instruction and meeting the students’ needs in the classroom, said Toni Badone, superintendent of Yuma Union High School District.
“We cannot assume students have resources at home. But we believe in their families and that their families want them to succeed,” Badone said.
The Children’s Action Alliance report provides data on children’s well-being from 2009 to 2014 statewide and by county. It is based on data from The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2016 Kids Count Data Book released in June that includes policy recommendations.
“It is important to understand the results of the Annie E. Casey 2016 Kids Count report and Children’s Action Alliance’s Arizona snapshot of Arizona as a guideline and not an absolute in every community,” Sandvik said.
Preschool enrollment improves
One highlight is that preschool enrollment for Arizona 3- and 4-year-olds increased to 36 percent in 2014.
High-quality preschool programs can improve children’s readiness for school, and that academic success can lead to greater postsecondary attainment and increased lifetime earnings, according to the Children’s Action Alliance report.
“Head Start and the expansion of state-funded programs since the 1990s have greatly increased access to preschool. But many children, especially 3-year-olds, continue to be left out, exacerbating socioeconomic differences in educational achievement,” according to a 2013 Kids Count Data Center report “Children Ages 3 to 4 Not Enrolled in Preschool.”
This year, Cartwright School District re-opened Byron A. Barry School as a full-day preschool and a Head Start program, Chavez said.
“We want our children to be ready for kindergarten when it comes to colors, numbers and proficiency. It’s important that they are ready for learning early,” Chavez said. “We know that preschool availability and reading proficiency go hand in hand.”
Reading proficiency remains low
In 2015, 40 percent of Arizona third-graders scored proficient or above on the AzMERIT English/Language Arts assessment.
Being a proficient reader by the end of third grade is important, because “by fourth grade, children use reading to learn other subjects” and children who can’t read proficiently by fourth grade are more likely to drop out, according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation report.
“Although improvements in reading proficiency have occurred since the early 1990s, progress has been slow, and gaps remain,” according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation report.
Technology is also an important factor in bridging the achievement gap, Chavez said.
“It provides students an opportunity to explore at home, read at home and learn about things that they are interested in,” Chavez said. “Technology initiatives are a priority here at Cartwright.”
Chavez commended Cartwright’s teachers, support staff and administrators for taking on challenges, finding solutions and “providing a world-class education regardless of poverty or income.”
Graduation rate remains stable
Arizona’s high school graduation rate remained steady at 76 percent, below the national rate of 82 percent.
Arizona Latino students’ graduation rate increased slightly to 70 percent in 2014, while graduation rates for White, Asian, and Black students declined, according to the Children’s Action Alliance report.
“Students who graduate from high school on time are more likely to continue to postsecondary education and training; they are more employable and have higher incomes than students who fail to graduate,” and have better health, make healthier choices and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, according to a Kids Count data center 2014 report “High School Students Not Graduating On Time.”
Ready Now Yuma represents Yuma Union High School District’s commitment to ensuring that every student graduates ready for success in college and career, Badone said.
“Through this work, every student – regardless of past academic performance or post high school aspirations – is challenged, supported and prepared toward college and career readiness,” Badone said.
Yuma Union High School District teaches every student a viable curriculum that prepares them for college and career.
“Our district does this as a way for our community to break the cycle of poverty. We provide them with the best possible skills and tools to be successful in post-secondary opportunities,” Badone said.
The college-going rate for all five of Yuma Union’s comprehensive schools is in the top 25 percent of the state, Badone said.
“Our goal is for them to be successful in college and career after they graduate,” said Badone. “We have seen more students graduating high school in four years; more 9th graders passing all core classes; more 9th graders passing all classes; a drop-out rate that is lower than the state average; and a 30% drop in disciplinary issues on all campuses.”
Yuma Union’s schools give students the opportunity to demonstrate what they know by allowing retakes/retests which holds them accountable to the learning, Badone said.
Policy makers seek solutions
To increase opportunity, policy makers should expand access to high-quality preschool and higher education and training, said Patrick T. McCarthy, president and CEO of The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
He said that increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers who do not have dependent children and providing paid family leave would also help parents meet their family and workplace obligations.
Policy makers should seek solutions to economic inequality, stagnant wages, the lack of jobs for people without a college degree and obstacles low-income students face in seeking postsecondary education and training, McCarthy said.
“Our leaders have the unenviable task of finding solutions to challenges that have been in the making for four decades” McCarthy said.